Moonstone Trek - The Alternative Inca trail
With Inca Trail permits running out earlier than ever and 500 people starting the trail every day, is it time to start looking at alternative routes? Exodus' Trip Manager Dan Cockburn has just returned from Peru where he thinks he has found the answer : an isolated trek with unexplored ruins and even better mountain views.
‘Slowly, slowly! Drink your water!’, was my guide’s mantra. Altitude sickness is a lingering concern for any traveller to the Peruvian Andes. It sneaks into conversations as readily as it does into your head – a slow, dull pain, that can progress into nausea and in extreme cases, worse. Folklore and pharmaceuticals both promise relief, with locals choosing the coca leaf and foreigners preferring Diamox pills.
I asked my experienced guide, Dimas, if he spotted a pattern in those most susceptible. ‘The young and fit’, was his surprising answer, explaining that they tend to push themselves and ascend too quickly. For the first time ever, I sensed that my less-than athletic physical condition would be a help, not a hindrance...
This is his account of four days on our new Moonstone Trek.
DAY 1 – Setting off
Driving toward the mountains around the Sacred Valley, we stopped for supplies. One sol (about 16p) bought a big bag of coca leaves. Now I felt fully prepared to face the new trail, which Thomas Hendrickson, who manages our Inca Trail tours from Cuzco, had stumbled across. He has waxed lyrical about it ever since, high praise from a man who has trodden these ancient Inca paths for nearly 30 years. Thomas named it ‘Moonstone Trek’ and we explored the ruined temple complex, with its namesake stone, on our way to the start point – a richer experience for having the site to ourselves. At the trail head, I met the horsemen whose animals were to carry most of our gear.
As the path meandered up the valley side, we passed a lone Andean lady – the only person we had seen in hours – before reaching a pre-Inca fortress sprawling along a high buttress. We spent an hour investigating the buildings in complete isolation. Glaciers glistened on far-off peaks, a condor wheeled overhead and I suddenly understood why this trek has Thomas so excited. The feeling of discovery is immense.
DAY 2 – The High Pampas
Today had worried me: a 900m ascent to a 4700m pass and camping at 4300m. Would I acclimatise in time? A couple of hours and several recitals of ‘Slowly, slowly! Drink your water!’ later, we entered the high pampas. The Andes are awash with this terrain of long, course grass, alpine flowers, a few birds and very little else.
With the red earth leading to the top of the pass in view, we took a break to give our bodies the chance to adapt to the altitude and to rest weary legs. Two noisy (and very endangered) Andean Flickers joined us and hopped around the rocks. Soon we reached the crest of the pass, and found a huge altiplano bowl broken only by streams. Rising into the cloud behind this valley were dark peaks whose countless glaciers and ice- fields only hinted at their height. A mile or so away, I could make out human forms: the horsemen, having passed us as we rested, were putting up my tent.
Fuelled by quinoa soup, we explored the high plateau, admiring the glaciated mountains until the weather closed in and took them from view. The sudden change in scenery made me forget about the altitude. It was only after dinner that I realised my fears had been unfounded and, with the guidance of Dimas, I felt absolutely fine. As the excitement from a sensational day’s walking turned to tiredness, the broad valley held one more surprise. Outside, the clouds had cleared to reveal an incredible moonless night sky. With my camera able to pick up the Milky Way, it was easy to see why they put telescopes at the top of mountains.
DAY 3 – Gate of the Wind
Early morning was silent, clear and cold as we followed the stream down from our campsite. As the sun’s heat rose, the stream tumbled into a narrow canyon and we clambered down the damp rocks. Soon, the canyon opened out to reveal a cloudforest of mossy polylepis trees; beyond these, we traversed a steep valley beside an Inca aqueduct carved into the cliff while a river roared a kilometre below. This led to the ridge’s end and the Inca Gate of the Wind, a decorative wall whose doorway faces beautiful Mt. Veronica.
Lunching by the ruins, we gazed upon snowy peaks as eight condors drifted by on thermals. The next camp was within the Inca quarry above Ollantaytambo, a city built on the original Inca grid whose temple is adorned with the quarry’s pink granite. The site is much as it was the day the Conquistadores violently interrupted the labour; the remains of workers who died here still lie, partly mummified, in niches amongst the rocks.
DAY 4 – Sun Temple and finish
We awoke before dawn to watch the sunrise over the Sacred Valley and the glaciers that irrigate it, then followed the huge ramps made to transport the enormous granite rocks down the mountain. Passing pre-Inca ‘chulpas’ (burial towers), we reached the valley floor and said goodbye to the horsemen. We were back down to 2,800m and I could almost feel the viscosity of the air as I readily sucked it in. We finished the trek at the famous Sun Temple, suddenly surrounded by tourists – the first I had seen since leaving Cuzco. Thomas had been right to eulogise about this path; the combination of culture, wildlife, history and mountain scenery offers a superb introduction to high Andean trekking. For me, the solitude and discovery stood out: escaping the tourists of Cuzco and the Sacred Valley to explore sites worthy of far greater attention is a rare prize. That I could appreciate it fully was down to Dimas’ priceless advice: ‘slowly, slowly! Drink your water!’
The Moonstone Trek can be done instead of the standard 4-day Inca Trail, it is a little higher and longer than the standard route and as such we have given it a 'C' grade – challenging. It doesn't require any permits and it uses horses rather than human porters, meaning there is no weight restriction. The trek's real strengths are its isolation (most groups won't encounter any other tourists), rarely visited ruins and far superior mountain views. It is a great introduction to real high Andean trekking. Following the trek, you will still get to see the splendours of Machu Picchu and can trek up to the Sun Gate to witness the wonderful views across to Wayna Picchu.
How do I book it?
Simply book onto any of our guaranteed Walking & Trekking departures that do the standard Inca Trail and put a note on your booking that you want the Moonstone Trek. One of our sales team will then be in contact to confirm your choice of route. If you are in any doubt, please call our sales team on 0845 863 9600.
This alternative Inca Trail can be substituted for the classic Inca Trail at no extra cost on the following trips: